Interview with a Veteran Saw Mill Man – R.D. Pike

Robinson Derling Pike Bayfield County Press March 6 1903 Article Photo
Robinson Derling Pike – Bayfield County Press – March 6, 1903

Interview with a Veteran Saw Mill Man

Captain R. D. Pike, the oldest saw mill man on Chequamegon Bay, and one of the most prominent in business affairs of her city, was interviewed by a Press reporter this week and gave out the following facts regarding the early manufacture of lumber in this section:

“We had no band saws, carriages, trimmers, steam [log rotation devices], winches in the old mill that stood on the stream [Pikes’ Creek] 4 miles from the city in 1855, and when I look back upon that scene I can’t help but wonder that the little city of Bayfield ever got its start from the erection of a frame building.”

Captain Pike was born in Meadesville, Pennsylvania, in the year 1838 and moved to this section with his parents November, 1855, first landing at LaPointe and then coming to the main shore and settling on the creek that now supplies with the purest of water the world’s greatest fish hatchery. The stream in the bay into which it flows had no name at that time, except that given them by the Indians, which is unpronounceable*. Shortly after arrival, however, the stream in the bay which welcomed the sparkling waters took the name “Pike” and has ever held them unto this day.

Here, in the dark shades of a sea of waving pines, not a mile from where is now located the state fish hatchery, resided the veteran lumberman. His home was a shanty of roughly hewn logs, purchased by his father from the American Fur Company, and was located near the place where the “old Pike house” now stands. It was a spot of wild beauty, and one, which we daresay, that Mr. Pike’s mind often wanders to as he sits back and rests from the cares and business worries of his life. It was in a wilderness, it is true, but, with the sparkling waters of the silvery stream coursing their way down through a valley of shaded green, and it seemed there came little ripples of laughter that told that nature gloried in her beautiful work.

On the stream stood the old mill, its great paddle-wheel splashing in the foamy waters like a huge fish. It was owned and operated at that time by Austrian and Leopold. In the summer of 1856 Mr. Pike’s father purchased a mill and operated it until the close of the Civil War. The machinery was driven by water power and the cuts in 24 hours, if everything went well, would total 4000 feet. When, finally, operations were suspended the old mill went to pieces, parts of it rotting away every year until now there’s scarcely a trace of it left.

Robinson D. Pike enlisted in the Army at Ontonogon in 1862, enrolling in the 27th Michigan Infantry. Later he was promoted to a Lieutenant in the first Michigan Calvary and served as such until nearly the close of the war, was again promoted, this time to Captain commanding a Company at Appomattox. From this latter name place he was sent with his men across the plains to battle against the “Reds” finally being mustered out at Salt Lake City in March, 1866**.

In the year 1867 or 68 Pike again entered in to the mill business, this time for himself, at LaPointe. Here he erected a shingle mill and operated the same about a year, when, through the carelessness of one of the employees, it was blown up. The exact cause for the bursting of the boiler will always remain a mystery. The building was blown to atoms, one man killed and another crippled for life.

After the destruction of this mill Pike returned to Bayfield and erected a plant. This mill, although it has been remodeled and refitted with modern machinery, is operating today, and is one of the best equipped plants, of its size, for the manufacture of lumber on the bay. Bayfield County Press, March 6, 1903

*We now recognize that ojibwemowin place names are not unpronounceable, but many have been lost to colonization, including the original ojibwemowin name of what is now known as Pikes Creek or ginoozhe-ziibiins. The name ginoozhe-ziibiins (literally, creek of the northern pike) is listed in “Gidakiiminaan (Our Earth): An Anishinaabe Atlas of the 1836 (Upper Michigan), 1837, and 1842 Treaty Ceded Territories” published by Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) in 2007.

**This refers to Pike’s role in Black Hawk’s War, the long series of conflicts between Mormon settlers, backed by the U.S. government, and the indigenous resistance led by the Ute, Paiute, Apache, and Navajo nations, in what is now known as Utah.

Pike’s Bayfield mill advertisement in the Bayfield County Press ca 1900

Pike’s Bayfield mill advertisement in the Bayfield County Press ca 1900.

This history brief was written by Robert J. Nelson. Generously sharing our local history through his research and writing. Edited by Marisa Lee.